With a massive emotional kick, this Belgian drama combines exhilarating hopefulness with bitter realism. It sometimes gets overpoweringly happy and sad along the way, but is sustained by transparent performances and gorgeous music. And since it takes a circular approach to the plot, it constantly surprises us.
The title is a reference to the folk song Will the Circle Be Unbroken, one of the classics performed by a talented Flemish bluegrass band led by Didier (Heldenbergh). He lives on a run-down farm in the countryside, and is completely smitten when he meets Elise (Baetens), a tattoo artist who has illustrated her life on her body. She's also a great singer, and she adds a badly needed woman's touch to his band. When their daughter Maybelle (Carttryse) is born, Didier and Elise feel like they couldn't get any happier. But six years later Maybelle is diagnosed with leukaemia. And going through her illness strains them to the breaking point.
Writers Joos and Van Groeningen (who also directs) tell this story elliptically, spiralling through events out of chronological order. Instead of feeling fragmented, this transforms the film into a wonderfully textured collage that's deeply involving as it bunches the happy and sad moments together. When they're at a high point, Elise observes that everything "seems too wonderful to be true". Although this means that when things take a bleak turn, they can get very dark indeed. This gives the film's narrative a rollercoaster trajectory that veers from soaring joy to wrenching desperation.
Fortunately, the actors are so good that we cling to them throughout the ride. Both Heldenbergh and Baetens seem to be lit from within, and when they sing we are transported into their pure emotions, from the delights of The Lion Sleeps Tonight to the pain of Wayfaring Stranger. It's rare to find a film that so adeptly covers the entire range of human emotion in one relationship, and sometimes this feels difficult to endure. But even in its darkest moments, the film has a hopeful beauty that speaks to us on a deeper level.
Run time: 111 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 10th October 2012
Box Office USA: $30.7k
Distributed by: Tribeca Film
Production compaines: Topkapi Films, Menuet Producties
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 81%
Fresh: 73 Rotten: 17
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: Felix Van Groeningen
Producer: Dirk Impens
Screenwriter: Carl Joos, Felix Van Groeningen
Starring: Veerle Baetens as Elise, Johan Heldenbergh as Didier, Nell Cattrysse as Maybelle, Geert Van Rampelberg as William, Nils De Caster as Jock, Robbie Cleiren as Jimmy, Bert Huysentruyt as Jef, Jan Bijvoet as Koen, Blanka Heirman as Denise